3 Steps for Writing Killer Expository Dialogue

I’m a defecting screenwriter. Novels and screenplays are so different. But I’ve been fortunate enough to work in both disciplines. Let me share what I’ve learned from the other Captain_Phillipsside of the fence: yes, the grass is greener.

Kidding. Your side is the greenest. Please don’t hurt me.

Just like every writer I have ever met, I enjoy movies and TV shows way more than I should. I binge occasionally… and it’s wonderful. I believe that there are lessons to be learned from any style of writing, so I like using story examples from film. Hope you don’t mind.

Even if you do mind, you can’t stop me. I was just being polite. This is my blog. Stop telling me what to do, this is my life!

Sorry about that. My inner rebellious teenager got out for a moment. I put him back in his kennel.

 

Why I Almost Walked out of the Theater During Captain Phillips

It ended up being an incredible movie, and I was truly moved by Tom Hank’s performance. He was robbed at the Oscars. Pisses me off.

But, I was so taken aback by the abrasive expository dialogue in the first couple minutes, it wrecked the intro for me.

To refresh your memory, here is the opening scene abbreviated:

Tom Hanks and his wife prep to leave their house. Tom packs, looks at his itinerary and gets in the van with his wife.

Once on the road, this is a paraphrased version of their conversation:

Wife: “I know this is what we do, this is our life, but it just seems like the world is moving so fast, and right now things are changing so much.”

Tom Hanks: “It’s not going to be easy in the world for our two sons. Danny isn’t doing too well in school. Lots of competition for jobs out there. Harder now. Gotta be strong to survive out there.”

That section of dialogue is so unrealistic. Why? Because they’re married. They have seen the progression of these events, so they don’t have to re-establish with one another that they have two sons, and that Tom Hanks is a family man despite traveling so often — which is the only reason that scene exists: to bring the audience up to speed.

But the wife knows that already.

 

Exposition

Everybody knows the golden rule, “show don’t tell.” So I’ve decided to beat on a different drum today. Sometimes you have to tell. It’d be a silent movie if you only show, and it’d be boring if you only told. There has to be a balance.

A story can’t be set up without a bit of history explained. So the real question is: How can I explain history without insulting my reader’s intelligence?

 

1. Be Meager

Expository dialogue is like a prostate exam: no one likes it, but it needs to be done to ensure everything is clear.

Cut any exposition that does not further the story. If a scene exists just to explain a situation, for the love of god, cut it from your story. A scene = connected events that change a character’s situation, desire, or perspective.

 

2. Add Conflict

An argument is prime real estate to bring up the past. There might be yelling involved, maybe some finger pointing, but your reader won’t notice you’re being expository if you sprinkle a little into the heat of a battle.

Anger

Boring dialogue: “Back when we were at Harvard, things were so much easier. It’s been what, twenty years? It’s hard to keep going now. I thought it’d be easier. I just want to quit.”

By adding some conflict to this, we can convey the same history in a way that’s more interesting.

Better dialogue: “You’d think people change, wouldn’t you? You’re the same slouch I met at Harvard. Twenty years of the same bull. The same entitled, lazy bastard who quits when the quitting’s easy.”

Suddenly, the audience draws in because there’s conflict. The character is being challenged to change. And, we incidentally learned the history that these two characters share in the process.

 

3. Be Stieg Larsson

Not literally. That’s weird.

In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the main character Mikael Blomkvist is introduced in a courtroom where he is being tried for libel. The case is highly televised, so reporters cover Blomkvist’s past to catch viewers up on the developing story.

Oopsies. Stieg just explained his main character’s past devoid of clunking dialogue.

Take advantage of people whose job it is to be expository: judges, reporters, journalists, police officers, principles, scientist… etc. These characters can give a simple synopsis to the audience.

WARNING: this is becoming increasingly cliche. If you use a similar approach, please try to be sparing. Don’t try to explain everything through one character. That comes across as a cop-out.


So, to recap: an argumentative prostate exam by Stieg Larsson. Remember that and you remember the essence of expository dialogue.

Don’t be self-conscious about expository dialogue in your first drafts. In your second draft, highlight every line of expository dialogue and make sure it’s absolutely necessary in order to propel the story forward. If it is, then edit it until it’s concise and natural.

 

Question of the day: What’s an example of obvious expository dialogue you either saw or wrote yourself? Is this an area you find difficult to navigate?

9 Comments

  1. While watching “Inception,” I noticed that Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character was explaining EVERYTHING that happened. Kind of like Gibbs in “Pirates of the Caribbean.” If writers shouldn’t use the same character to explain what’s going on, why did Nolan break that rule with Gordon-Levitt’s character?

    • bdschmitt

      April 27, 2015 at 4:41 pm

      I can’t speak for Nolan (who is an incredible writer). But, since that character solely existed to ask questions so the audience could understand what was going on — it makes sense because it was a complex world, but his character was flat as a result.

  2. Ben, You are a brilliant, inspirational, and humorous writer! Can’t wait for your next blog!

  3. Hey Ben, thanks so much for writing this. I’ve read a couple posts like this, but this one I liked because of its down-to-earth relevance. Thanks for keeping it simple and relatable.
    I’m actually doing some writing exercises that I plan on publishing on my blog soon in which I try to convey as much about my character by showing how he/she interacts with things and people, rather than have a lot of exposition. I’m trying to learn from C.S. Lewis’ mastery of characterization in a brief amount of time.
    Thanks again, and please, please keep writing.

  4. bdschmitt

    April 27, 2015 at 9:07 pm

    Thank you, Bryce, that’s very kind of you to say!

    Great idea about the writing exercises – always a super effective way to reveal more about a character by their choices. And C.S. Lewis is fantastic.

    Shoot me a message when you publish that blog post. I’d love to read it!

  5. I actually did exactly one of the things you suggested in a story I wrote last year. In the first scene, a girl was coming out of a court house and she was being mobbed by reporters. From the questions the reporters were shooting at her, the reader learned that the guy who raped her had just been found innocent. Then a stranger helps her escape from the reporters and they get to talking. Since he doesn’t know her story, it makes sense for her to tell him the missing details that wouldn’t have made sense if I put them in the reporters’ mouths. Within three pages, the reader is all caught up on the drama of her life, and the plot can get rolling.

    • bdschmitt

      April 29, 2015 at 10:31 am

      That’s a great tactic, Tamara! Getting the plot rolling ASAP is vital. A common mistake is drawing out the history for multiple chapters, which is slow and boring. Did you find the inciting incident came quicker because you could explain backstory so soon?

  6. Sheesh, I need this write now! I’m at the stage in my book where I’m tying all the little threads together, trying to explain why everything is happening. It’s a killer, but I have to do it right. I won’t do it sloppy. Back to some deep thinking for me, thanks for your post!

  7. bdschmitt

    May 3, 2015 at 3:56 pm

    Hi, E.L. Wicker! That spot is a great one to be at. I love it because the stakes are high, and tensions are taut. Are you revealing the “Eureka” moment through circumstance/action or through admittance/dialogue?

What do you think?

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